May 9, 2003

Single, Successful and Solitary

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

It's Saturday night and Rachel stands in front of her bathroom mirror eyeing her outfit. She's dressed in a black top-which shows plenty of neck but no cleavage-tight pants that ride just low enough on the hips to expose the tiniest sliver of skin, and a pair of genuine leather boots from Texas that her friend once told her looked sexy. She brushes a trace of makeup onto her cheeks, purses her lips together to even out the lipstick, and sucks in her tummy. Then Rachel exhales audibly, her breathing sounding suspiciously like a sigh.

This is a ritual that Rachel, 32, has repeated countless times for more than 10 years. Smart, good-looking, and financially independent, Rachel (not her real name) has been doing pretty much everything she planned since graduating college. She got her degree from a top-tier university, found a job that allowed her to do something she enjoyed while still making a decent salary, got a place of her own, established a substantial circle of dedicated friends, and even became an activist at her local synagogue. But the years went by quickly, and though she has moved ahead professionally, Rachel still lacks the one thing she wants most: a husband.

Rachel is not alone.

Tens of thousands of young Jews across America are actively looking for Jewish spouses, and many say it is the predominant preoccupation in their life. While exact numbers are hard to come by, the perception that there are growing numbers of unmarried Jews of marriageable age has many people worried, from Jewish community professionals and rabbis to parents and their single children. Many reject the notion that any sort of problem exists at all, saying that any anxiety about the issue of Jewish singles stems from a cultural bias toward unmarried community members that is steeped in cultural morays that no longer hold true for modern America.

In the multifarious universe that is Jewish America, even when there is consensus about the path life ought to take, there is little agreement about how, exactly, one should get there.

"The verbal concerns of both parents and singles is finding a mate," said one young rabbi, Ari Berman, spiritual leader of Manhattan's Orthodox Jewish Center. "The real question is what we should do about it."

At stake, some say, is nothing less than the perpetuation of Jewry itself.

Whether or not the numbers of Jews marrying later in life is rising-anecdotal evidence suggests that it is, but sociologists say they don't have enough data on the phenomenon-it's clear that for those Jews who are single and don't want to be, finding a mate is not easy.

"I've been on more dates than I can count," one young Manhattanite said. "Dating is exhausting and demoralizing, but what else can I do? I've tried everything."

The growing number of single Jews has momentous implications for a community obsessed with its own continuity. For one thing, demographic data show that single Jews are less likely to participate in Jewish communal life than members of a family. For another, longer singlehood suggests fewer children, given the increased difficulty of conceiving a child as women get older and the diminished period of fertility after marriage.

For singles themselves, an inability to find a Jewish mate often triggers depression, causes stress in relationships with parents and significant others, and sometimes drives bachelors and bachelorettes to explore marital options outside the Jewish community.

"I try not to get scared by the fact that I'm not married," says Batsheva Halberstam, 27, a psychology researcher from New York. "It would be nice if I had somebody in my life to love. I think, like a lot of women in my situation, there is a burning fear in the back of our heads about having children and getting older-and your biological clock ticking."

Sonia, a teacher in Long Island who asked that her last name not be used, said marriage is a sensitive topic for her 29-year-old son, who is single. "My husband and I try not to bring it up very often," she said. "But it's a measure of worry. When everyone around you seems to be pairing off and your child isn't, you worry about the availability of appropriate matches. The pool of good people is lowering. When will our son meet the right person?"

So, what is so hard about finding someone to marry?

"My opinion is, if someone really wants to get married they'll get married," Gerald, a parent from Long Island, said. "The ones that don't, they'll make excuses up the gazoo. For whatever reason, they're just not interested or not ready to get married yet."

More likely, observers say, the reasons for the phenomenon of later marriage are a bit more complex, and perhaps they tell a story as old as assimilation itself. In a country with little anti-Semitism and one of the highest recorded intermarriage rates in the history of the modern Jewish diaspora, more Jews than ever in America are living life as do their fellow Americans. In the process, American Judaism is growing ever more indistinct from American culture.

Whereas a generation or two ago Jews might have gone away for Passover to the Catskills' "Borscht belt," spent their Saturday nights at synagogue mixers, and looked to the Yiddish theatre for entertainment, today's American Jews are more at home culturally outside of the Jewish community. They spend Passovers at Miami Beach, where even religiously observant Jews stop to flirt with bikini-clad vacationers on South Florida's sandy shores. They go to trendy downtown bars on Saturday nights, where they can dance hip to hip with young Indians, Dominicans and Connecticut Episcopalians who share their affinity for cold beer, loud thumping music, and a sexually charged atmosphere. And for entertainment, they, like most Americans, go to the movies, shoot snooker, or settle down in front of that great cultural equalizer, the TV.

They read The New York Times, not the Yiddish daily Forward, and their dinner-table conversation is more Hollywood-centric than Jerusalem-centric.

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that it's difficult for young Jews taught since childhood that they could partake of all the wonders of gentile America to accept that there is one thing they cannot have: a non-Jewish spouse.

"We've embraced so much of the lifestyle outside of our tradition," says Rachel Kirschbaum, a single 30-year-old who teaches at SAR, an Orthodox day school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. "There's no real 'Other,'" she said. "It makes it harder to commit to a person within this community because you're very, very limited. Even if I'm not going to make a choice outside the Orthodox world, when I look outside my pool, I'm not turned off; I just know that I can't have that."

Not only has American acculturation made it cumbersome for Jews to limit themselves to Jewish spouses, it has introduced into Jewish relationships the same cultural propensities that mark relationships in America as a whole.

"The family unit in the American fabric is already disintegrating," said Noah Levine, 34, an internet entrepreneur and student of international affairs from New York. "You pick up on these things," he said. "In America, we're becoming more and more individualistic. The more wealthy you are, the more educated you are, the less children you have. People are more picky now. It's not just Jews that are getting married later; everyone's getting married later."

With greater wealth and education than most Americans, Jews are at the forefront of that sociological trend.

"Jews have gotten married later than others for a while," said Chaim Waxman, professor of sociology and Jewish studies at New Jersey's Rutgers University. "It's socioeconomic. There is a concern with establishing themselves socioeconomically and therefore they pay less attention earlier on to things like marriage and family," he says. "Given that the national average marriage age is going up, I would assume it's even later for American Jews."

Though American Jews may be marrying later than most Americans, that demographic is somewhat different than those actively looking for Jewish spouses. The latter crowd, which comes from more tradition-minded homes, tends to place a high premium on Jewish marriage and family.

And the fact that those Jews are marrying later is perceived among Jewish communal leaders as an emerging problem.

"One of our major concerns is on the marriage issue," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "It's a growing problem. Besides being a concern from the point of view of intermarriage, one of our issues is helping people find fulfillment so they won't be lonely."

As far as intermarriage, he said, "I don't want people to be able to say I started to date a non-Jew because I couldn't find a Jew. I hear it, and not only in the Conservative movement."

Micah Berman, 27, an attorney living in St. Louis, says the Conservative and Reform movements also are concerned about the impact of the phenomenon of late marriage on involvement in Jewish communal life.

"Separate and apart from the intermarriage issue, Conservative and Reform Jews generally don't affiliate with synagogues until they get married and have kids," Berman said. "By the time they do get around to joining synagogues, they've had years and years where they were totally separated from Jewish communal life. This is generally unhealthy for both the synagogue and the Jewish community in general: It produces members that tend to see themselves as consumers, rather than as active leaders with an investment in the community."

Of course, he said, "The solution to the problem isn't necessarily earlier marriage-it's finding some way to involve post-college, pre-marriage people in synagogue and Jewish community life."

The problem is that liberal-minded Jews-Conservative, Reform, modern Orthodox-want their children to embrace the values of the modern world on the one hand while adhering to old-world family customs about early marriage on the other.

"If people want young Orthodox people to be married and having babies by the time they're 25, then you shouldn't be raising them in Teaneck and sending them to Columbia and Penn and Harvard; you should be arranging their marriages in Boro Park at 19," one woman said, making reference to Ivy League universities popular among parents in the centrist Orthodox class. "But if we're becoming a product of the larger American culture that puts value on education and career, then that's what we're going to do."

In the centrist Orthodox community, there is no lack of impetus to get married: There is the natural inclination to seek a partner in life, a desire for children, the need for sex. And, of course, there is Jewish guilt.

"In this community, you're defined by your marital status, not by what you're doing or by who you are," said one Orthodox woman who asked not to be identified.

Another woman, an Orthodox divorcee in her late 20s, said she was propelled into an ill-destined marriage by parental and communal pressure. "I got comments from my parents along the lines of, 'Why are you going out for so long and nothing's happening?'" she said. "I felt I had been dating for so long that we had to either get engaged or break-up. We didn't break up, so I felt marriage was the next step we had to take."

The contrast between communal pressure on singles and communal acceptance of married young people of the same age is thrown into stark relief immediately after one gets engaged, one Orthodox woman reported.

"All of a sudden, you're validated as a person," she said. "You get seated at the adults' table at your cousin's wedding. And you get taken more seriously-even if you're a 19-year-old bride. Before, if you're getting a PhD at an Ivy League university and you're 28, you're still viewed as a child. I think it's horrible."

Implicit in that contrasting treatment is communal approbation of singles and a sense among frustrated parents that young single Jews are unmarried by choice. Not long ago, Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz took to the podium at one of Manhattan's largest gathering places for Orthodox singles, the Ohab Zedek synagogue, to harangue congregants for choosing bachelorhood.

Congregants reacted furiously. Many of them bristled at being called old maids. A few reportedly stormed out of shul. The insult, they said, was that Steinsaltz, like many of their parents, assumed they were single by intent.

As one parent noted, "If someone really wants to and they're dating fairly regularly, how could there be nobody that tickles their fancy? I find that very hard to believe."

The Jewish Center rabbi, Berman, 33, sees things quite differently. He says parents and children agree on the same core issues. The question is what should be done about it.

"The parents' role is not to throw it into the singles' face when they come home for the weekend, because the single knows it," Berman said.

Speaking from his pulpit at the Jewish Center synagogue, just down the road from Ohab Zedek, Berman delivered a sharply contrasting address to Steinsaltz's a little while after Steinsaltz's speech. "The real singles crisis is how singles look at themselves and how the community looks at them," Berman said. Perpetuating a sense of failure will just make things worse for singles' self-esteem and for their relationships with their parents and the Jewish community, he said.

"Their being single longer is in part because of this. If you have a negative self-image, it will be much harder to find someone who loves you. Being single is a real part of life today. Being single does not indicate abnormality."

In Berman's neighborhood-Manhattan's Upper West Side-there probably are more identifiably Jewish singles of marriageable age than in any other neighborhood in the Jewish diaspora outside of fervently Orthodox Brooklyn. Thousands of young Jews move to the neighborhood after college or graduate school, and as a consequence the West Side has developed a reputation as a singles mecca. Young Jews from as far away as Europe and Israel come to the neighborhood looking for their soulmate.

Consequently, the West Side has developed the cultural and economic infrastructure necessary to appeal to young, single Jews. Kosher eateries are as common as health-food stores in the famously liberal neighborhood. There are countless synagogues of every conceivable religious variety. There is a Jewish community center. There is even a Jewish nightclub and cultural center, called Makor. The founder of that center, real-estate mogul and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, said he built the $11 million facility for the express purpose of giving non-religious Jews an attractive setting to meet each other and, eventually, get married and produce Jewish progeny. The club has become so popular in the five years since it opened that many of its most frequent patrons are not Jewish.

Conversely, many of the non-Jewish establishments in the neighborhood have become popular hangouts for Jews. Some of the trendy cafés on the Upper West Side have special menus for kosher-observant customers. The local Barnes & Noble-chain bookstore has a large Jewish section and regularly invites authors to lecture on Jewish-related topics. On Saturday nights, many of the bars are filled with kippah-clad youngsters. One café bar, Drip, which has a mezuzah on the doorpost, plays matchmaker by providing patrons with binders filled with personal ads in which customers can peruse for mates sorted by religious preference.

"Right now, being single is a lot of fun," said one young socialite from Manhattan's West Side. "I live in my own apartment, I am single and independent, I have no responsibilities," she said. "You have to see this time as a time unto itself, not a transitional time. There are some people who just refuse to enjoy this time."

Having such an easy time of it may be part of the problem, some say.

"When we were growing up, there was pressure to get married, but on the West Side there's no pressure," said one New York parent. "I think it keeps them sane and gives them a whole social life. But what happens is they have such a good social life, so who the hell needs to get married? If you get the milk, why do you need the cow?"

For his part, Rabbi Berman said, "That may be true that if the singles community on the West Side didn't exist, and women didn't have jobs, and economically and socially it wasn't acceptable-but that's not the reality."

Nevertheless, the socialite's sentiments about single life in Manhattan symbolize many parents' concerns.

"There's nothing pushing me to get married," she said. "But when I go home to my parents' house and I see people younger than me who are married, suddenly it becomes very difficult to be single."

She confided, "Between you and me, I don't think I'm ever going to get married. If I really want kids then I would adopt. I would move closer to home and my parents would help me. It's not what I want, but I think you can find ways to be happy even if you don't fit in the model of what you expected throughout your life."